How local restaurants keep up with change: Andrew Coppolino

Andrew Coppolino looks at how restaurants in Kitchener-Waterloo cope with evolving industry pressures and trends.

Some restaurants faced minimum wage hike, others had to navigate new food trends

The rules of engagement change frequently in the restaurant business, and that is the case for southwestern Ontario's so-called twin cities, Kitchener and Waterloo. (Chris Roussakis)

The rules of engagement change frequently in the restaurant business, and that presents a challenge for business in Kitchener and Waterloo. 

Here's a look at some pressures faced by the region's food venues.

Staff and wages

When he looks back on the year, Brian Plouffe, owner of Waterloo's King Street Trio says increased labour costs have affected how restaurants do business.

"With the introduction of the minimum wage increase, we really had to look at our operational hours and trimmed those back," Plouffe said.

"Basically, I open at 5:30 p.m. daily and close at nine through the week. I've seen other businesses doing that as well." 

Just around the corner at Red House, owner Dan McCowan says constant attention must be paid to staffing costs.

"I'd say focusing on staff retention has been huge because training and re-training is very costly, but we've had luck keeping people in both front-of-house and back-of-house," he said.

Like Plouffe, Brad Lacey, general manager at The Walper Hotel adds to the chorus of restaurateurs who agree with better wages — but not the way it was rolled out.

"It wasn't the best thought-out plan and should have been implemented over the course of a number of years," said Lacey.

For him this has meant operational decisions have to be made to retain the same bottom line: cut hours, reduce staff or increase prices so the customer pays. The latter is the least desirable tactic.

As well, food prices have gone up over the last year to 18 months, according to Plouffe.

"The higher proteins have definitely gone up in price. If you put that on the menu, your guests have to be willing to pay for it."

Casual, comfortable

Because many restaurants are keeping menu prices down, they feel the need to maintain a casual atmosphere to match the tone. From his vantage at Café Pyrus, a casual restaurant he's operated for eight years, Tyzun James has observed a noticeable shift to casual—and cites Grand Trunk Saloon, Adventurer's Guild Café and Grand Surf Lounge.

"Fewer and fewer people are going to go to a formal restaurant in any downtown. Maybe you need [just] one," James said.

Several months ago, The Berlin re-branded as The Rich Uncle Tavern. According to co-owner Ryan Lloyd-Craig, The Berlin was a formal restaurant that people visited for special occasions.

"We decided to take it in a different direction that people would frequent once or twice a week," said Lloyd-Craig.

The Rich Uncle has live music upstairs, a casual menu focused more on sharing plates and cocktails and an ambiance serving the over-25 crowd.

"People want something unique and different," he says.

In Waterloo, McCowan says he has maintained a casual philosophy for Red House since its beginning.

"We have had a focus on not being too fine dining since we opened five years ago," he said.

While not in downtown, Graffiti Market is at the border of the two cities. With interactive digital tables, unique pizza, in-house beer, coffee, a small marché and even vinyl records for sale, the large venue appeals to a wide demographic.

"It could show the direction the market is going, especially with the tech sector here. There's a piece of that that is going to change how we operate," Lacey said.

Cocktail and craft beer culture

A robust cocktail selection boosts the bottom line, downtown restaurateurs say. Although Café Pyrus doesn't have a liquor license (but they have kombucha on tap), James has observed the culture.

"It's difficult to change your food menu every day at a price point people are going to want to pay," he said.

"But with cocktails, you have all the ingredients and you can make something exciting daily. It gives people a new experience."

Lacey agrees.

"Cocktails go to people coming in for an experience of something unique," he said. "It's an expectation that separates a good venue from a great one."

Restaurateurs recently have seen the liquor side of the bar provide a strong revenue stream that has eclipsed the wine cellar, according to Plouffe.

"If you would have told me five years ago that the Old-Fashioned was going to be vogue, I would have laughed. But they clearly are."

More people, more events

Both Waterloo and Kitchener cores suffered during infrastructure repairs and LRT construction, and they're eager to find benefits: can the ION improve business?

Major construction makes commuters change routes to and from work—and with that they also change habits of which  restaurant or bar they might visit.

Lacey hopes the ION will deliver more customers, adding that any momentum has to be buttressed by the cities "creating unique events that get people down to downtown."

Plouffe, originally skeptical of the ION's ability to drive business, says he now supports it and hopes it will boost business.

Lloyd-Craig at Rich Uncle says he "can't wait" for the trains to start running to see if they bring people downtown.

"I still think people like to drive, whether it's a time issue or convenience," he said.

"I think all of us, including Uptown Waterloo, will benefit from the intensification downtown over the next five years. I can't wait for it to happen," he said.